So, after bragging about my non-addictive personality and how, even with something as addictive as tobacco, I soon lose interest and stop the addictive behavior (see My Last Cigarette), I must now come clean. I’m dying for a cigarette. I imagine standing every morning at dawn at my back door, smoking a Gauloise and sipping hot espresso with Sambuca. But I gave my last bottle away for Christmas, and the daughter I usually mooch cigarettes from has gone to Disneyland with her family to spin herself silly on teacups. I, too, would be spinning myself silly if not for my new addiction, which, like cigarettes, I can quit anytime I want. Ironically, it is also related to that den of iniquity and temptation known as la République Française.
I’m talking about the French television series A French Village, which I’ve been binge watching since before Christmas and haven’t finished yet. The series is about the German occupation of a fictional French village named Villeneuve near the Swiss border during World War Two. The series ran for seven seasons from 2009 to 2016. To give you a sense of just how addicted I am, there are a total of 72 episodes and I am down to my final six. The episodes vary in length from 40 to 55 minutes, which means I’ve spent anywhere from 44 to more than 60 hours watching the damn thing, and I’m still not done. That’s a Silicon Valley work week. Good thing there wasn’t anything else I needed to do.
Why did I start down this rabbit hole in the first place? To begin with, I like the historical period and World War Two. I was also interested in seeing the occupation from a French perspective. Once into it, I found the characters convincing, with no one being completely good or evil, although SS chief Heinrich Müller is particularly vile. The others vacillate between sincerity, loyalty, and courage on one hand and deceit, betrayal, and cowardice on the other. For example, Jules Bériot, the school principal, starts out as a good-natured, fumbling bureaucrat but then turns into a scheming politician who smothers a wounded German soldier in his sleep. To aid in his character’s transformation, the actor grew a beard, which may be the series equivalent of “grow a pair” or “sois un homme,” as another character and communist revolutionary, Marcel Larcher, writes to his son.
It’s also a soap opera. The characters hop in and out of bed with one another as regularly as if they were speed dating. Even Müller finds it distasteful, although not enough to stop cavorting with the mayor’s wife, who is something of a salope herself. If you had to pick a main character (there isn’t one, which makes the series even more appealing), she would be in the running. Or trotting.
Two themes stand out overall. The first is the constant reminder that there is a war on and that Resistance fighters shouldn’t be overly concerned about the consequences of armed conflict or espionage. This attitude of “c’est la guerre” runs through nearly all the episodes. Even the leader of the maquis, or Resistance, comes to terms with it after admitting publicly that he had to abandon four of his comrades to the Germans. The collaborators have more or less the same attitude except, of course, they work alongside the Germans.
I like this approach. The Resistance fighters were working under extreme conditions and, apart from snitching, gave themselves the benefit of the doubt when it came to their decisions and actions. They made mistakes, got over them, and moved on. If we apply “c’est la guerre” to our own lives, to the things we regret, kick ourselves over, and wish we had done differently, we come out with an entirely different attitude toward ourselves and life.
The second theme came up at a bridge on the outskirts of Villeneuve that the Resistance fighters were trying to blow up. Talking about their leader, a woman, one of the maquis says that she is remarkable because she balances courage with discretion. There is no boastfulness in her, which he found rare. “Usually, you get courage or discretion but not both,” he mused, to which his companion added, cynically, “or neither.” If there were ever a spirituality for both war and life, wouldn’t this be it?
There are certain things I don’t like about the series. Americans are caricatured as crude, uncaring, corrupt, and overbearing. They are too pragmatic for their more delicate French counterparts. Actually, there are no counterparts, just American overlords and French minions. Even Bériot disparages American swing at a celebratory ball by referring to it as “savage music.” Despite his sulking, everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves. That the American soldiers have Canadian accents and reply with “aye-aye” when given an order are simple technical issues that could have been fixed easily.
Finally, there are the communists, one of whom with glasses and a weak chin drinks only red wine. They come off as virtuous freedom fighters working not just for the liberation of France but all oppressed people on the planet. You get the feeling that a woke script snuck its way into the last season after the writers got tired of telling stories and took it upon themselves to educate the viewer. I hope that’s not true. I’m wary of scripts that teach or indoctrinate. Better to tell the story of the relationship between Marcel Larcher and his son, Gustave, for instance, than to go on and on about class consciousness.
In the end, with all the smoking going on in the series, I want a cigarette even more than before.
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